Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Patna Diary (c. 2001)

The visions of Laloo and Rabri effectively scotch the notions of a ‘connected’ Bihar. Though there is little to choose between Patna and Hyderabad in terms of the number of cybercafes per square kilometre (at least in the prime business districts).
One sees heavy poster advertising of a site called, which provides the ‘important questions’ of the forthcoming Board Examinations! Contrary to popular belief, the site supplies no information on the subtle art of ‘hall collection’!
And of course, there are Bihari malapropisms (intended or otherwise)… as the kiosk on the outskirts of Muzaffarpur claimed “Net suffering (sic) – Rs 40 per hour”.

Contradictions abound in the city of Patna. With the posh areas sporting a splash of colours with all major international brands making a glowing appearance – Adidas, Nike, Benetton, Smirnoff rubbing shoulders with Louis Phillipe, Bata and Titan. No signs of the poorest state of India there.
In a plush shopping complex on Exhibition Road, two adjacent shops sport the following signages: “Archies Gallery… Home Delivery of Flowers arranged” and “Ujjain Arms: Bandook ki Dukan, Bikri aur marammat”.

A place on the outskirts of Patna threw up an interesting twist to the tale.
I was trying to convince a retailer about the latent demand of our new brand of soap – by playing the ultimate trump card of popularity of the times.
“It is being advertised on all episodes of KBC” – I said.
“But nobody watches KBC here”, he calmly countered.
Seeing the look of incredulity on my face, he explained, “Star is a pay channel, you see… while you can get Zee for free.”
Here was a town that time forgot… so did the television ratings people.

The Whacky team at Channel V have come up with a Colossal Chaos Countdown, where they show the best of bathing scenes, death speeches and so on – from Hindi films. Maybe they should have a section on Biharis depicted by Bollywood. Institutionalised by Shatrughan Sinha, Biharis are fast overtaking Tamils as the most-caricatured race in Hindi cinema. The pronounced accent, the distinctive dialect, the emphasis on the last syllable all contribute to it being an easy prey. All the more so after Shekhar Suman made the art of Laloo-mimicry into a national pastime.
The doyens of Hindi film comic villainy – Paresh Rawal, Mohan Joshi, Sayaji Shinde et al – have played the dirty Bihari politician (often the Chief Minister!) to perfection. Latest industry reports say that a forthcoming film is slated to star Karisma Kapoor as Rabri!

But Biharis have really contributed to the growth and development of the nation – or so they claim. The Finance Minister is a Bihari – as is the Telecom Minister, now infamous for his sops to the world and its cousin!
The most happening actor since dear Shatru-bhaiyya is Manoj Bajpai – who makes no bones about hailing from Bettiah (or is it Motihari?). In fact, he lugged along the entire unit of ‘Shool’ to these places – just to get the authentic feel in the film. As a result, people of Bettiah still talk about the glorious morning when they saw Raveena Tandon step out of Hotel Shanti International. The real connoisseurs can even remember the exact shade of her blue jeans!
There are Biharis all over the place, just waiting to crawl out of the woodworks! Their all-pervasiveness becomes apparent when the self-appointed spokesman of the state (Shekhar Suman of Kadamkuan, Patna) points out the rather obvious thing… even Emperor Ashoka was a Bihari!
To the oft-quoted theorem, “Sardars and potatoes are found everywhere” – a Patna wag adds a rejoinder. He says, “Biharis are like salt. Can never spot them. Too little is tasteless. Too much is unbearable.”

Despite all the ignominy and calamity heaped on it, Bihar continues to survive. Like the proverbial cockroach, which has survived aeons without showing the slightest signs of evolution. And it has adjusted itself gloriously to the challenges put to it – most of it by its own rulers!
As an apocryphal story goes, Bihar is the only place on the face of the earth where you get change from robbers. As narrated by a friend, the protagonist got accosted near Mahendru Ghat in Patna. The attacking team (with the proper display of firearms) procured the rings, watch and wallet from him. When about to leave, the protagonist tearfully claimed that he was left with no money to reach home and begged for a return of part of the booty. When it transpired that the minimum denomination of cash in the wallet was a 50-rupee note, one of the attackers pulled out a tenner and pressed it into the victim’s hand.
And true to Darwin’s theory, Bihar has developed defence mechanisms that help it tide over its perennial litany of woes. One is initially taken back when one sees an abnormal number of underwear and sandal hawkers in and around railway stations in Bihar. Then, one is told that given the huge number of thefts/robberies on trains, a correspondingly huge number of passengers are stranded without any belongings. So the first things they have to buy are – you guessed right – a change of undies and hawaii slippers. Elementary, my dear Watson-wa!

Too many things in and around Patna bear the epithet of being Asia’s largest/biggest/best.
The Mahatma Gandhi Bridge across the Ganga is said to be Asia’s longest river-bridge. The Kankarbagh Colony is said to be Asia’s largest residential colony. The Marufganj area near Patna City is said to be Asia’s largest ‘galla’ (money-lending, food-grains etc) market. So on and so forth.
One wonders why people here stop at Asia. Given the strength of numbers this continent has, there is very little chance that Asia’s largest residential colony would not be the world’s largest.
This becomes particularly funny when one hears claims that Patna has the highest number of cycle-rickshaws in Asia. With the only other competitor being probably Saigon, Patna’s satisfaction at being only “Asia’s biggest” sounds rather ambition-less. As if the city is afraid of taking on the world at one go!
PS: The latest such label off the blocks is – Patna is Asia’s only city without a red-light district.

Having ended, when I set out to correct the spelling mistakes dutifully pointed out by the red squiggles under the words, I realise that Microsoft Word insists that I change Bihar to Bizarre.
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